Are you looking for freedom of expression in Russia? Try YouTube
MOSCOW – Mainstream television in Russia, directed by the Kremlin, barely mentions Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin punk group, or Aleksei A. Navalny, the country’s most prominent opposition figure. Forget about hearing a lot of feminist talk or humor at the expense of the government or Russia itself.
“The whole social and political part of television is controlled by the authorities,” said Leonid G. Parfenov, a freelance news anchor who has been banned from public television since 2004 for being too critical of the government. “For this reason, you cannot consider this televised journalism – it is only propaganda, it is only employees of the presidential administration.”
Yet voices that the government would like to silence are regularly heard by tens of millions of Russians in another format: YouTube.
For more free opinions and comments – especially from those who criticize President Vladimir V. Putin – YouTube has become the primary means of reaching Russian audiences. In particular, it challenges, if not supplants, state television as a source of information for young people.
Give voice to Putin’s enemies and make fun of his friends
Pussy Riot gained an international reputation for a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral which sent its members to prison. But the group’s criticisms of Mr Putin and – worse, for many Russians – his reputation for sacrilege and homeland-mourning have kept him virtually invisible on state media.
But an interview with band member Nadya Tolokonnikova by acclaimed sports journalist turned internet star Yuri Dud garnered nearly eight million views on YouTube. In the above excerpt, Ms. Tolokonnikova recounted an encounter with Madonna, whom she described as a “crocodile” best kept at bay.
Mr Dud, 32, has attracted more than 5.3 million subscribers, including interviewing people banned by federal channels and asking Kremlin favorites no one on state television would dare ask .
He asked Nikita Michalkov, a director known for his nationalist views and friendship with Mr Putin, why the government had subsidized his many box office failures.
Shortly after Mr Navalny was excluded from the 2018 presidential election, Mr Dud (pronounced ‘dude’) questioned him at length.
All its tariff is not that heavy; Mr. Dud’s most popular interview, with over 24 million views, involved a lengthy discussion about penises with a young woman who is an Instagram celebrity in Russia.
Mr. Navalny himself is a YouTube force, having created the most successful overtly political channels in the country.
His statement claiming that Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister and former president, had turned government work into a fortune, has been seen over 30 million times and has helped lead the biggest street protests in recent years.
Looking at Russia, not always through a flattering lens
Fifteen years after being banned from public television, Mr Parfenov, 59, hosts two YouTube shows.
One is a diary, in which Mr. Parfenov, dressed in a garish shirt, opens a bottle of wine and discusses topics ranging from travel and art to Soviet worship of the Russian army.
The second uses archival footage to explore Russian history.
In the above segment, Mr Parfenov described the rage for golden teeth right after WWII, when, he said, years of deprivation meant “almost all Soviets needed dentures. dental care at the age of 40 ”. The “working peasant majority” had to be content with stainless steel, which seemed “modest and inelegant” to the Communist elite, fueling a black market for Tsarist coins to be converted into gold crowns.
“Such work can only be done through relationships, through influence behind the scenes, if not informally,” said Parfenov.
Draw young viewers with scorching humor as well as news
Danila Poperechny, 25, whose success as a stand-up actress began with his YouTube videos, toned down open politics, though he still mocks the government and encourages subscribers to participate in some protests.
It would be next to impossible for any broadcast channel to show Mr. Poperechny, given his lay monologues.
In the clip above, Mr. Poperechny mocked how the main state television news program might cover him, mocking the ways of TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the main Kremlin propagandists.
Viewers 45 and over, people raised in the Soviet Union, tend to believe what they hear on state television, Poperechny said, unlike the YouTube generation.
For urban viewers aged 18 to 44, YouTube reaches 82% of the monthly audience, according to a recent study, roughly the same as the two major state channels, Channel One and Rossiya 1.
A survey of the independent Levada center Last year, it was found that a majority of Russians rely on television as their main source of information, with the exception of the youngest cohort, aged 18-24. The more educated and urban the population, the more people trust the Internet for information, especially on sensitive issues like the economy and anti-government protests.
“Television simply brags about the beauty of Russia and highlights the mistakes of others,” Poperechny said, but young Russians are harder to handle. “We can now go abroad, gain experience in other countries and see how they live. “
Frank talking about women’s lives gets an outlet and a backlash
Some unusual shows owe their success to focusing on topics that federal channels ignore or denigrate, such as feminism.
At Nika Vodwood Nixelpixel channel, she talks directly to the camera on topics like her sex life, tackling domestic violence, not shaving her legs and masturbating.
In the clip above, Ms Vodwood says feminism improved her sex life because it allowed her to set limits on what she would and wouldn’t do – a tame speech by Western standards, but quite enough radical for the Russian media.
Ms Vodwood, 25, receives death threats and fears her support for LGBT rights may fall under Russian laws banning gay propaganda. A mini-community has sprouted online that attacks and makes fun of her, but her more than 460,000 subscribers allow her to attract a few advertisers.
Free speech advocates fear Russia is trying to follow China’s model of state internet censorship, and the Kremlin has took the first steps in this direction.
But some critics say the main threat to Russian YouTube comes from its own success. Fresh money, shows and advertisers are pushing aside house channels which have made it a major outlet, threatening to marginalize serious content, especially politics.
Celebrities like Xenia Sobchak, Russian reality TV star, journalist and failed presidential candidate, flock to YouTube with more tabloid prices. There is no shortage of popular channels to explore tech, movies, music, fashion, and more.
“TV is coming to YouTube because they need the creativity, the market – they want to control it,” said Nikita Likhachev, editor-in-chief of TJournal, an online magazine which covers everything related to the Internet.
Taboo topics explored on YouTube include Russia’s dark past
Globally, YouTube has come under fire for failing to curb extremist and violent content. But at least for now, this particular slice of YouTube hosts a much wider range of talk about Russia than state television.
Mr Dud recently completed an arduous road trip through the frozen Far East region of Kolyma, once known for its harsh labor camps, and released a documentary about it.
At the end of the video, watched by over 14 million people so far, Mr. Dud explained how the Russians failed to fully exorcise the fear instilled by Stalin’s legacy. State television does not encourage such introspection.
“Some of those who have made it to the end of our video,” he said in the segment above, “will say,“ Pud, why this fixation on Stalin? Why do you mention it so often? “
Mr. Dud replies: “This is not about our past, but our present. “
Despite fears that YouTube will become more commercial, it remains the most viable platform for those who would frankly analyze today’s Russia.
“The opposition has nowhere to live except on the Internet,” said Parfenov.